In nearly every sport, there are rivalries that define the the the times in which they occur. Manning v Brady, Bird v Johnson, Yankees v Red Sox, the list goes on and on.
Motor racing is no different. Since the beginning of the sport, rivalries have dominated headlines, driving up ratings and generating conversation. In Formula One, Jim Clark v Graham Hill was perhaps one of the first widely publicized rivalries to exist within F1 and despite the two drivers being the closest of friends, their rivalry was one of incredible speed and talent on the track. From there drivers continued to be pitted against one another year in and year out. Stewart v Fittipaldi, Hunt v Lauda, Prost v Senna, Schumacher v Hill, Schumacher v Hakkinen, Schumacher v Villeneueve (Okay really anybody versus Schumi), and most recently Hamilton v Rosberg.
While the last three years of Formula One have produced an often times heated scenes both on and off the track, I have heard very few refer to it as one of the great rivalries of all time. And I am doubtful it would go down as such. Rosberg was good, yes, but he was very rarely able to beat Hamilton by speed and skill alone. More often than not he lay it waiting, goading the Brit into making a mistake and then pouncing. It was not the sheer, outright tenacious rivalry that fuels the imagination of youngsters everywhere like Prost and Senna or inspires movies like Hunt and Lauda.
But with the retirement of Nico Rosberg, and more importantly with the ascendancy of Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel, we as fans, may be in store for what we have been clamoring for, for the past several years. A true, full throated, deep seeded rivalry. We are now living in the time of Hamilton v Vettel. Two unquestioned titans of their time, ready to go up against one another. While I don’t think we will say and fractious moments akin to what Senna and Prost put us through back in the late 80s, we could be in store for several years of intense, nail biting, seat of your pants, rivalry between two of the finest drivers of their generation.
Switching gears (pun kind of intended) to Indycar, we see a completely different situation. In the American series there is a near complete lack of rivalry. Drivers may get heated with each other from time to time, but rarely is a word thrown in anger. Even when it is, it is often retracted or put into nicer terms later on. Take for example the race in Detroit last year when James Hinchcliffe derided Carlos Munoz for running in to him at the restart only to publicly apologize to Munoz after watching the tape.
Now, Indycar has always been a series of personalities, but not necessarily rivals. Yes, figures like AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Tom Sneva, Rick Mears, and the whole Unser clan may have towered over the series, but rarely have we seen a true rivalry of epic proportions. The only major one that comes to mind was during the years of the split when Sebastian Bourdais and Paul Tracy seemed to be at loggerheads, both on and off the track, every other weekend. But outside of that, rarely have we seen anything with such sustained contentiousness.
Is this a good or bad for the series today? Well, if we look at the NASCAR model for racing, it hurts. NASCAR has long built up the personalities of its drivers, often allowing them to be pitted against one another. So much so that seeing a fistfight after a NASCAR race is almost something to be expected nowadays (I will be the first to admit this is not an exclusive NASCAR quality as both Nigel Mansell and AJ Foyt have a history of throwing punches). While some parts the of the racing community might find that kind of behavior boorish, there is no question that it drives ratings through the roof. But is that the kind of sport Indycar wants to project?
The series has put up, in the past several years, Indy Rivals videos, showcasing the on track fights between drivers. It’s been a good strategy and good way to get a few more eyeballs to the sport. But the truth is that rivalry, and specifically a NASCAR type rivalry, has never been what has driven Indycar. Unlike Formula One, Indycar has maintained the family nature in the paddock that was present at the birth of all racing. Excessive money and fame drove Formula One drivers into seclusion and forced them to withdraw from not only the public, but each other. Indycar on the other hand, while by no means skimping on paying their drivers, does not command the international fandom that F1 does, and as a result, the drivers and their families are able to keep the friendly atmosphere that was present, for example, in the paddock of 1960’s Formula 1.
This is what makes Indycar so great. Despite the personalities in the paddock, despite men and women performing superhuman feats behind the wheel, they have remained a family. Some of my favorite moments of Indycar lore are the ones that show just how close these guys are. Watching the pranks that Franchitti and Kanaan and Castroneves used to play on each other crack me up to this day. Hearing the stories of the shenanigans of Tom Sneva and Robin Miller make me feel like I may have gone to high school with guys like them. And even today, watching the videos that Indycar has put out recently, showing the drivers in their race suits, slogging through the off-season or watching Alexander Rossi dump two gallons of milk over his head, give me a sense of family within the Indycar community. It truly is a unique community within racing and I hope it stays that way.
So while one series may be hurtling us towards a rivalry years in the making between two multiple world champions, the other will, hopefully, embrace the family that is present, and in many ways, always has been.